Three Useful Ideas


William D. Wells (1986) ,"Three Useful Ideas", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 9-11.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 9-11


William D. Wells, Needham Harper Worldwide, Inc.

ACR was founded to promote exchange of ideas among government, industry and academia. The premise was that each of these entities has something to learn from each of the others, and that creative solutions to complex problems are most likely to occur at the border.

Over the years academia has provided most of ACR's agenda. For many good reasons, professors have organized most of ACR's symposia and submitted most of the competitive papers. Industry or government participants have usually been discussants or listeners.

In this sense the tripartite deal has been pretty one-sided. Academicians have done most of the work and the other two partners have reaped more than their small share of the benefits.

In the spirit of redressing the balance just a little, this talk will send three ideas from industry to academia. All three of these ideas have influenced ms thinking about consumer behavior.

They have changed both research designs and action recommendations. And since we all have interests in common, I have reason to hope that they will prove both interesting and useful.

The first idea comes from efforts to understand advertising. The basic notion is that only part of an advertisement's effect occurs at the time of exposure. Another part -- and sometimes a very important part -- occurs later, when the consumer comes into contact with the product.

As many of you have demonstrated in your own research, the consumer's immediate reaction to an advertisement is most likely to be cognitive and rational. The advertisement makes claims about the product, and the consumer believes these claims or counterargues. Of course the process is never quite that simple, but that's a reasonable first approximation.

But that's not the end of the story. Something else happens later, and that something may be sore important than what happens right away.

What happens later is that the advertisement and the product interact, and that interaction transforms the consumer's experience.

Transforming interactions occur because environments are complex, ambiguous, and open to multiple interpretations. Visiting a department store or a supermarket, taking an airplane trip, renting a car, going to a movie, preparing and serving dinner, visiting Las Vegas -- are all complex episodes, replete with multiple stimuli to be singled out or ignored and forgotten. Even comparative}y simple events like ordering a beer or smoking a cigarette are subject to multiple interpretations, depending on the symbolism of the product and the meaning of the situation

Advertising helps consumers interpret these experiences. It suggests what should be noticed. It provides cues and clues to help consumers understand and appreciate their feelings. And in this way it can change the nature of the response.

This way of thinking about advertising is not all that radical. More than thirty years ago, Solomon Asch found that he could change the way students evaluate a lecture by manipulating the lecturer's prior "reputation." And studies of prejudice have repeatedly shown that racial stereotypes, for instance, can have a powerful effect on interpretation of behavior.

Part of the information consumers use to interpret their experience is explicit, overt and cognitive. Advertisements make claims about products, and if these claims are halfway believed, they influence what the consumer thinks he is doing.

This part of the information is relatively easy to measure. It shows up on standard copy tests which focus on overt changes in cognitive structure.

But the other part of the information is much more subtle. It is encoded in casting, lighting, accents, dialogue, music, body language -- all the instruments of drama.

This part of the information is extremely difficult to measure. Our standard copy tests are insensitive to it, and indeed the consumer himself may not know how or where this information was acquired.

"I do not like thee, Dr. Fell.

Reason why I cannot tell.

But this I know, and know full well:

I do not like thee, Dr. Fell."

When the consumer comes into contact with the product, he uses both the overt, explicit information and the subtle cues to help him understand and interpret what is happening. And, as with the versifier who doesn't like Dr. Fell, the latent information may be decisive.

So here we have two separate problems. First, an important part of the information in advertisements is missed by current research procedures. And, in some cases at least, that missed information may carry the day. Second, advertisements have a delayed effect: they transform the consumer's experience with the product. Some of this delayed effect may come from easily measurable cognitive changes, but a very important part of it may come from subtle cues that are not noticed or remembered. In either case, the delayed effect itself cannot be measured at the time of exposure.

But of these problems present formidable research challenges. The first challenge is to develop research techniques that are sensitive to the subtle cues that influence later product perception. The second challenge is to develop research procedures to assess what happens when the residue from the advertisement encounters purchase or consumption. These research tasks are undeniably difficult. But the reward for mastering them would be a major gain in sophistication.

The second of three ideas addresses the question: must an advertisement be disliked to be effective? The idea is simply this: most products can be classified into three broad categories -- "approach" products, "avoidance" products, and products which we might call "utilitarian.

Approach products are products that most consumers approach spontaneously -- products like good food, new cars. new homes, entertainment and travel.

Avoidance products are products that most consumers would not purchase if the product did not forstall some even more unpleasant consequence. Most cleaning materials fall into this category, along with deodorants, mouthwashes, insurance, medical and dental treatment.

Utilitarian products are in between "approach" and "avoidance." Office supplies would be a familiar example.

The proposition is that advertising for approach products will be liked if it is effective. Approach products have so much intrinsic positive affect, that if consumers don't like the advertising, someone has botched the communication.

On the other hand, avoidance products are intrinsically negative. If a lot of people get warm and fuzzy about an advertisement for an avoidance product, it is prudent to consider the possibility that a lot of people have simply missed the point of the communication.

I don't mean to recommend that advertisers of avoidance products should strive to be hideous. I do mean to suggest that the relationship between affect and effect for avoidance products may well be zero or even somewhat negative.

What about utilitarian products? With the right kind of advertising and enough of it, an advertiser can change a utilitarian product into an approach product. McDonald's provides an obvious example. In principle, McDonald's is pretty utilitarian. But years of advertising have transformed consumers' experience. McDonald's advertising has provided an inventory clues that help consumers notice, interpret and appreciate the positive aspects of a visit to McDonald's, and help-then ignore some of the negatives.

So the answer to the question, "must an advertisement be disliked to be effective?" is, "it depends upon the product being advertised." For approach products, the relationship between affect and effect is likely to be positive. For avoidance products, the relationship may be zero or even negative. And for utilitarian products, the relationship may be determined by the history of the advertising.

This answer has broader research implications. If the relationship between affect and effect varies by product type, then other relationships may vary by product tope as well.

Right now, standard procedure in academic research is to generalize findings from one product to all products. Researchers who would never dream of conducting a study with N=1 respondents routinely conduct advertising research with N=l products. It's basically a sampling problem. It may be just as dangerous to generalize from N=1 products as it is to generalize from N=1 persons.

The third idea has to do with Relevance. Don't tune out. This won't be another diatribe about the ivory tower. In this case Relevance has a very specific meaning, and to get at that meaning we need a little background.

Researchers have often wondered what consumers can tell them about advertising. To find out, they have employed adjective check lists and rating scales, open-end questions and depth interviews.

All this work has shown that consumers can say whether they like an ad or not, and are perfectly willing to do so. Thus "attitude toward the ad" has become an important research variable.

This work has also shown that consumers can tell us something else: They can tell us whether the ad says anything about the product that is relevant to their interests.

Without going into a lot of background detail, let me show you a ten-item rating scale that asks about the advertisement's relevance:


1. The commercial made me think about buying the brand that was advertised.

2. The ad didn't have anything to do with me or my needs. (-)

3. The commercial made me want the brand that was advertised.

4. During the commercial I thought how the product might be useful for me.

5. The message in the commercial was important to me.

6. The commercial did not show me anything that would make me want to use their product. (-)

7. I have a more favorable view of the brand after seeing this commercial.

8. The commercial showed me the product has certain advantages.

9. It was meaningful for me.

10. It was worth remembering.

These ten items ask the respondent in slightly different ways whether the advertisement speaks to their interests. When an ad scores high on this scale, respondents are saying, "Yeah, that ad makes me want to buy the product." And when an ad scores low on the scale, respondents are saying, "No, it doesn't."

What are we to make of such answers? As research psychologists, we all know that we can't trust subjects to examine and report on their own motives. But as real people we often ask our friends to do Just that, and we often behave as though we more than halfway believed the answers.

"Do you want a cup of coffee?"

"How about going to a movie?"

"Why did you do that!"

"How strongly do you feel about her?"

So the third idea is the R Scale - R for Relevance. I think we should take Relevance seriously and see what it can tell us.

The R Scale has a lot going for it. It is internally consistent and reasonably reliable. It discriminates sharply among ads in ways that are intuitively appealing. And most important of all, the variable it represents has popped up in study after study -- across investigators, across methods and across media. A variable that pesky deserves some serious evaluation .

So three ideas are hereby returned from industry to academia:

1.  Some advertisements literally transform the consumption experience. This effect is not captured by current advertising research methods.

2.  Relationships between affect and effect--and probably other relationships as well-- vary sharply by product. It is as important to sample Products as it is to sample people.

3.  Relevance, as defined by the R Scale, is an important variable. It is well worth serious attention

Each of these ideas has the potential to change advertising research, maybe even for the better. If that should happen, it would confirm the premise on which ACR was founded--that different disciplines have something useful to say to each other, and that creative solutions to complex problems are likely to be found at the border.



William D. Wells, Needham Harper Worldwide, Inc.


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13 | 1986

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